When the protean William Friedkin released The French Connection in 1971, he established a cinema vocabulary that would continue to bear fruit for decades, drawing heavily on the 60s French noir of Jean-Pierre Melville, and anticipating the grit and paranoia of 1970s NYC filmmaking. Blood Ties, the 2013 release by Guillaume Canet is heavily indebted to that film, speaking exclusively the language of French Connection.
Director: Guillaume Canet
Producers: Alain Attal, Huillaume Canet, John Lesher, Hugo Sélignac, Christopher Woodrow
Writers: Guillaume Canet, James Gray
Cinematographer: Christophe Offenstein
Editor: Hervé de Luze
Cast: Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana
US Theatrical Release: March 21, 2014
US Distributor: Roadside Attractions
At first glance, the picture is enormously promising. The cast is almost unreal—Marion Cotillard, Clive Owen, Zoe Zaldana, Billy Crudup, and James Caan alongside legit character reliables, Noah Emmerich, Lili Taylor, Domenick Lombardozzi, and Matthias Schoenaerts. The 70s cinematography evokes the likes of Midnight Cowboy, Serpico or more recently Donnie Brasco, or A Most Violent Year.
The plot follows a NYC police officer (Crudup), and his brother (Owen) a thief recently released from prison hoping to make a fresh start, as they reconcile their history in Mean Streets Brooklyn.
Now if any of this sounds at all familiar, especially when you add Cotillard to the mix, and evokes other recent installments in the language of 70s NYC crime (We Own the Night, Little Odessa, The Yards, The Immigrant) you won’t be too surprised to learn that director James Gray co-wrote the screenplay to Blood Ties, and his fingerprints are all over the film. And all of this (including Canet whose 2006 Tell No One was basically a perfect mainstream thriller) should make for a very sharp film, a brooding meditation on family and violence. Blood Ties is not that film.
The trappings of overaffected period drama are definitely early warning signs, alongside ruthless accents (Owen and Crudup, both Brits transported to Brooklyn, and Cotillard is French doing Italian American). But charting the places where Blood Ties runs astray is sadly simple. Any basic hermeneutic thrust is never really established.
As much as I wanted to love Crudup, his character isn’t charismatic enough to carry the plot. Mila Kunis is predictably intolerable, but she isn’t in the movie long enough to make it’s failings her responsibility. The accents (although predictably strange and affected) were not as distracting as I had feared. In the end, it’s the heavy-handed moralizing and hammering at plot devices that really de-rail the picture.
The English theatrical release is about twenty minutes shorter than the French release (144 minutes) but I don’t know if I could, in good faith, recommend either of these cuts. My suspicion is that there is a terrific 70 minute cut living inside this picture, that has all of the style and none of the grist of a great crime film, but that that cut also doesn’t really have Cotillard, Caan, Lili Taylor, or Mila Kunis. This is an unfortunate paradox, for a movie that should have been a classic. The only reason to recommend Blood Ties, would be to try and encourage the team to reassemble for a mulligan. As it stands today, it only feels like an installment of failed promise and historically B-movie results.